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The Grub Nook With Great Oyster Stew

By John Gould / April 7, 1995



THE subject of a ''favorite'' restaurant is not easily dismissed; I had no idea so many folks have memories of odd places that pleased them.

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There may be evidence here that eating places need to give a thought over and above the platitudes of ambience, decor, and atmosphere that have been accepted as guidelines for good taste.

So far nobody, anyhow, has nominated a fast-food joint for a gold medal. Years ago when my friend and I began our annual jaunts into the deep Maine woods to philosophize and bring culture to the uninhabited townships, we paused in Greenville, at Moosehead Lake, to break our journey and eat lunch. We found a lunchroom over toward Greenville Junction with a sign across the front saying, ''Some Place Else.''

How many times have those words been used in the quest for a favorite restaurant? Thus:

''Well, shall we try the Greasy Spoon again?''

''No -- let's go to Some Place Else.''

And here it was. Bill and I went in and found a half-dozen empty tables and a short counter with stools, behind which a redheaded woman was peeling potatoes and cutting them in strips for French fries. ''You fry your own?'' Bill asked.

''From scratch, and I peel every one. How would you like your hamburgers?''

Some Place Else became our favorite restaurant, and the waitresses came to remember us from year to year. Then one summer the place was boarded up. There was a new owner who began to serve factory-made fries just the same as Every Other Place, and as he lost his customers he went out of business.

So why would anybody buy a lunchroom named Some Place Else and fail? Because of his patent potatoes and because he changed the name to Sportman's Cafe. It's the little things.

Years ago a salty old sea cook opened a hole-in-the wall grub nook on the end of a wharf in Bar Harbor. The place had no style, and the minimum menu was as the laws of the Medes and Persians. The counter had stools, and there were no tables.

Anthony, for that was his name, came to be called Pop-Eye, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays he served a clam chowder with Bent's common crackers, and while the crackers were all right the chowder was just another Down East clam chowder that was no more inspiring than the warmed-up kind from a can. But on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the story was different.

Pop-Eye closed on Sundays.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, he would decant an oyster stew that nobody elsewhere could match. Whatever his secret was, it did the trick, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays the little nook was so crowded that some people had to eat standing up, while others waited to get in. So things went, and on clam-chowder days Pop-Eye was never busy. And one day, so the story goes, a dapper gentleman in shined shoes and wearing a necktie opened Pop-Eye's screen door and stepped in, taking a stool as Pop-Eye said, ''Mornin'.''

''Good morning,'' said the gentleman, ''I believe I would like a bowl of your oyster stew.''

''Today's clam-chowder day,'' Pop-Eye said.

''No, I don't care for clam chowder -- I'd like one of your oyster stews.''

''No way. Oyster stew tomorrow.''

''I won't be here tomorrow -- so make me an oyster stew.''

''Look, Mister -- clam chowder is today, tomorrow's oyster stew.''

''Well,'' said the gentleman, ''I'll put my cards on the table. My name is Duncan Hines, and I publish a book that names outstanding eating places, and if your oyster stew is as good as people tell me, I'll put you in my book and make you famous.''

''Don't make no odds who you be, Mister, today's the wrong day. Now, d'you want clam chowder?''

Mr. Hines made several efforts to cajole and prevail, but Pop-Eye was an old sea cook and when he was in his own kitchen he didn't take any guff from anybody. So after a bit Mr. Hines got down off the stool, gave the modest place a survey of disdain, and withered poor Pop-Eye with a haughty sneer. Then he went out and slammed the screen door. Which explains why Pop-Eye's nook on the wharf, a favorite restaurant to many people, was never included in the Duncan Hines list.

Pop-Eye liked to tell all this in his own way, imitating Mister Hines and his off-island ways, and he emphasized the slamming of the screen door so you could hear the thing bang. ''What did you do?'' people would ask Pop-Eye.

And Pop-Eye would say, ''I went to the cash register and I rang up 'NO SALE.' ''